Reporter's Notebook

Is the Long Hard Road to Academia Worth It?
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Our discussion began with readers venting their frustrations over securing funds through the National Institutes of Health. The reader thread evolved to center on the question, “Is a Ph.D. worth it anymore?”

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We previously heard from a black scientist from a working-class family who jumped off the path to a professorship in order to make a lot more money in the private sector, specifically Big Pharma. “Black and Hispanic people are disproportionately from poor families,” he wrote, “so people like me who have the smarts to work at a place like Harvard aren’t all that interested in making $50K a year.”

Another factor that inhibits many non-white and non-Asian postgrads from pursuing a career in academia is the lack of desirable job locations—specifically, as this reader puts it, “locations that are conducive to lives of young people of color”:

I’m a black woman in my early 30s. I just finished my PhD in the past year, and I’m currently in my first academic job. (Please change my name or Jennifer or something; I don’t have tenure yet, lol.) My experience is a little different than the people in Ed Yong’s article, perhaps because I’m not in science. I spend my days thinking, researching, writing, and teaching. I love my job.

But I think about quitting everyday. Unlike the people referenced in the article, I am compensated well. My issue, however, is that most universities (including the one where I work) aren’t in locations that are conducive to lives of young people of color.  

I grew up in a large, metropolitan city with a bustling, black middle class, one of the largest in the country. I also went to a predominately white university, so I know what it’s like to be the only black person in class. That being the case at work is one thing. But I don’t want that to be the case everywhere I go, and I definitely don’t want to raise my future children in an environment like that.

A professor cuts a human brain at a lab specializing in multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s. Neil Hall / Reuters

My colleague Ed wrote a piece last week examining the relative dearth of science professors who are not Asian or white (“Science’s Minority Talent Pool Is Growing—but Draining Away”). He quoted many experts, primarily Kenneth Gibbs Jr., an immunologist and science-policy expert at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences:

Gibbs gathered figures on the numbers of Ph.D. graduates and assistant professors in the science departments of medical schools throughout the country, from 1980 to 2014. The data were stark. During that time, the number of newly minted Ph.D. holders from underrepresented groups grew by nine times, but the number of assistant professors from those groups grew by just 2.6 times. No such gulf existed for well-represented groups like whites and Asians; there, the Ph.D. graduate pool grew by 2.2 times while the assistant professor pool rose proportionally, by 1.7 times. […] In an earlier study, Gibbs showed that women and underrepresented minorities are 36 to 54 percent less likely than white and Asian men to be interested in faculty careers ...

A reader questions the implications of those findings:

Um, why should we assume that minorities with science backgrounds going to jobs outside of academia is a bad thing? Perhaps they feel a private sector or a government career would be more rewarding, or those jobs are in locations they would prefer to live in as opposed to university locations?

Another reader is more blunt:

There is something rather patronizing about the implicit assumption that women and minorities are wrong about their own interests and priorities. Perhaps women and minorities are more likely to go to medical school because—gasp—they actually want to become doctors, not teachers of other doctors.

Ed’s piece did touch on those factors:

But why does the gap exist? Donna Ginther from the University of Kansas wonders if it’s partly because Gibbs focused on medical schools, most of which do not guarantee salary with tenure, and so might be unattractive when compared to other alternatives. Perhaps scientists from minority groups are just seeking employment elsewhere. Gibbs counters that this is unlikely, since almost every sector of academia struggles with faculty diversity. Hiring practices are a likelier culprit.

Here’s a reader in academia with a telling anecdote:

I remember myself and a couple of my postdoc colleagues having a conversation with two really talented young black women who were technicians. We were trying to persuade them to go to graduate school and get on the academia track.

They laughed at us. They told us that we were women in our early thirties who couldn’t afford to buy houses or have children, who spent our nights and weekends working, who didn’t have retirement savings, and who were still struggling to get permanent jobs. Why on earth would they want to be like us? I felt they made a good point.

This next reader has the most relevant perspective of all:

I’m not a PhD, but I am a scientist who recently left a Harvard lab to work in Big Pharma and I’m black. I’m sure there’s some discrimination at play, but I would argue that one of the biggest issues here is the pay associated with academic life.

I grew up in a working-class, inner-city family in Boston and was bussed 1.5 hours both ways to go to school. I was highly modulated to do well because I saw the lives of my schoolmates that were SUBSTANTIALLY better than mine (median income in my neighborhood of $40K vs median income of $150K in the town I went to school in). I realized education was going to be my way out, so I threw myself behind that 100 percent.

We’ve heard from many readers scrutinizing and outright disparaging the long and uncertain path toward a Ph.D. Here’s reader David with a more positive outlook:

Thanks to The Atlantic for several recent articles on this topic, and for the continued discussion in Notes. They really struck a nerve with me.

I want to point out two major elements that are missing from this discussion. First, as I experienced it, there were two distinct cultures in the academic world, starting in grad school. There were “writers” and there were “teachers,” and the writers were supposed to be the elite. Teaching was slightly beneath the writers. The writers were expected to do original research, publish articles in leading journals, publish books, and publish at least one “master” work, hopefully winning the Pulitzer Prize.

I have no doubt that these people provide the highest and most stimulating work in our profession. However, some of us just prefer to teach.

Secondly, there was no mention of jobs at private colleges, community colleges, or state colleges. This omission betrays a prejudice in our professional culture.

Three more readers share their critical experiences of working toward a Ph.D. and the postdoctorate that often accompanies it. Here’s Mary:

I spent (too many) years in a prestigious PhD program. During my post-doc, I saw newly-hired Assistant Professors work 60-hour weeks to generate preliminary data in order to secure funding during lean years (early ‘90s). They spent their Saturdays in the lab, bringing their young children with them. (The kids wrote on white boards. One spouse cleaned the lab.)

Quite simply, I did not possess the interest or drive for this kind of life. When my son was born, I determined that I would earn a living in a way that provided economic security, as well as time to be there for him. Initially, I was fortunate to secure a non-research position in a government agency. I later moved to the private sector.

There is an arrogance about academia that is imparted to doctoral students: that the tenure-track position is “pure” research and the only honorable path for a PhD. Stuff and nonsense.

This reader doesn’t think so:

I am certainly glad that Congress increased NIH funding, but from where I sit as an early-career academic researcher, it’s not going to put a dent in the massive brain drain out of academics. The reason is this: Ours is a terrible profession to work in. Just terrible.

The number of good jobs—the tenure-track jobs—has collapsed. What has replaced them is graduate student TAs, adjuncts, one-year visiting assistant professorships, and postdocs. The typical academic career path now looks like this:

Get a Ph.D. (This once took four or five years, but the time to degree is now creeping up to six or seven years.) Get a string of several temporary positions (postdocs, adjunct-ships, visiting assistant professor positions), which are paid very poorly relative to your education level and require you to move cross-country or even internationally every 1-2 years. When I say “paid very poorly relative to your education level,” I mean that people in these jobs get paid the same or less than my friend who is a mechanic. Even so, there are so few jobs relative to the number of newly minted Ph.D.s that many people never even make it this far.

Many other researchers (via hello@) share their struggles with securing funding through the National Institutes of Health. Michael was caught in a Catch-22:

In response to Nora’s callout for stories about the effects of flat NIH funding: My project went through a period of about one year when my NIH grant was going through the renewal process, during which we had no funding because it just missed getting a fundable score when it was reviewed the first time, and I had to collect additional preliminary data that was requested by the reviewers. But this took longer than expected—or, one could argue, necessary—because, without funding, my lab staff was minimal. I also did not accept any new graduate students into the lab during that time due to the uncertainty.

The revised grant was funded, starting last December, but the lapse in continuity has meant we are barely back to full steam now, as I have had to hire and train new people. As Francis Collins, Director of the NIH has said, research is not like an assembly line that can just be shut down and restarted as necessary.

But I think there is another, just as important, force at play here: When Congress does not approve a budget before the start of the fiscal year, the NIH plays things very conservatively in terms of awarding grants that have been approved. So, if one’s application was scored close to the cutoff, one may not get the money until very late in the federal fiscal year when Congress finally acts. This again can lead to disruptive gaps.

David is also frustrated with a fickle Congress:

While a PhD student in 2008, I had the privilege of working at a prestigious and dynamic program, the Marine Biological Labs Physiology Course, where I worked on exciting new research with the leading cell biologists in the world. While there I discovered a new method of eukaryotic (mammalian and other high level organisms) cellular organization. It was amazing. It founded a new field of research. I earned my PhD in 2011 and had a postdoctoral position offer from my dream lab, an NIH group that was arguably the best cell imaging lab in the world. I was ecstatic!

But the position couldn’t be officially opened until Congress passed the new budget, and sure enough, that is when Congress decided to grandstand about whether they would pass a budget or not … and then shut down the government for an unknown amount of time.

Last month, I posted a callout for biomedical researchers to vent a little. Over the course of my reporting on funding at the National Institutes of Health—the world’s biggest source of biomedical research money—I’d heard from scientists in interviews, in the Atlantic comments section, and on social media about how lackluster funding at the agency crumples careers and hampers scientific progress.

But lay people—myself included, once upon a time—might not know why that is. So I asked researchers for more first-person details: How does the agency’s funding, which was flat for more than a decade before last year, trickle down to their labs? And why do they take funding so personally?

Before the agency received a $2 billion bump in funding last year, budgets had been flat for more than a decade. In fiscal-year 2017, the NIH looks poised for another increase: A House subcommittee just approved a $1.25 billion boost at a meeting Thursday, and last month, Senate appropriators signed off on a $2 billion increase.

In response to my reader callout, a researcher at a Midwestern medical center, Prachee Avasthi, emailed a helpful summary describing how funding directly translates to quality of life in a research lab. She called my question confusing, because funding is “not just personal; it’s everything”:

“Finally there is hope.” That’s what Harvard psychiatrist Jordan Smoller wrote on Twitter earlier this year in reaction to a story I penned about a funding increase for the National Institutes of Health. Congress, with enthusiastic bipartisan support, had added $2 billion to the agency’s budget for 2016. It came after more than a decade of flat funding. Lawmakers hadn’t made the NIH a top priority since the late 1990s and early 2000s—and there were consequences. As I reported last year:  

When the NIH struggles, biomedical scientists at universities all over the country don’t see even their best grants getting funded. When those grants aren’t funded, researchers pinch pennies in the lab, cut down on staff, or, in some cases, leave science altogether. Heather Duffy, a former assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, said she never would’ve left the biomedical research field if the grant-funding climate were better. After crafting 18 different grants one year to appeal to peer reviewers, she had the realization that she wasn’t “even doing science anymore,” and left in 2012.

In 2015, though, things started to change; one research advocate told me lawmakers were reacting to the “steady drumbeat of loss of life.” And Smoller was not the only scientist (or lay supporter of science) to react the way he did as the funding bump materialized and then actually passed Congress. In The Atlantic’s comments sections and on social media, for example, researchers and their allies responded with gratification, with aspiration for more money to come, and with reflections on their frustration with the previously sluggish funding. Here’s one reader: